Blogs > Cliopatria > Shifts in the Summers Case?

Feb 20, 2005 2:06 am


Shifts in the Summers Case?



A special meeting of the Harvard faculty is scheduled Tuesday, but there seems to be some turning of the tide in the Larry Summers controversry. Today, the Washington Post and, less enthusiastically, the Boston Globe both published editorials supportive of Summers. I agree with the Post's conclusion that if"Summers loses his job for the crime of positing a politically incorrect hypothesis -- or even if he pays some lesser price for it -- the chilling effect on free inquiry will harm everyone."

On campus, moroever, faculty from outside the Arts and Sciences have issued strong statements of support for Summers, as yesterday's Harvard Crimsonnoted. Such remarks make it hard to argue that Summers has lost the confidence of the institution's faculty overall, even if his relations with FAS are tense.

Summers' statement was foolish--not because it was indefensible (although aspects of it seem intellectually sloppy), but because a Harvard president should have thought twice before issuing remarks that were certain to arouse tremendous controversy on an issue that was peripheral to his overall goals.

In any event, I've found the reaction to Summers' statement far more disturbing than anything the president said. As Judaic Studies professor Ruth Wisse has noted, over the past couple of weeks, Summers has been"sounding more like a prisoner in a Soviet show trial than the original thinker that he is."

Summers has now released the full text of his remarks; they are sufficiently wide-ranging that those predisposed to favor him will no doubt find comfort, while his critics no doubt will find fodder to bolster their complaints.

One item that Summers raised strikes me as particularly noteworthy: his call to consider the possiblity that factors other than discrimination in the hiring process explain gender imbalance among science faculty. As Wisse observed, this claim aroused strong opposition on campus from those eager"to transform guarantees of equal opportunity into a demand for equal outcome." By any survey that's been released over the past few years, the academy is the most left-leaning major profession in American society today, with the possible exception of the media. It seems somewhat counterintuitive to contend that search committees populated largely by figures at the end of the political spectrum known for a pro-"diversity" agenda regularly engage in gender discrimination.

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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

I'd agree that Dr Snider's point is valid--but Dr. Johnson's larger point remains. University search committees (in particular) are notoriously pro-female in their biases--even when the actual members of the committee are all male (which rarely happens) there may be administrative pressures. I'll give you one, tragic exaple. An econ department at a largish Great Lakes state university was told that the next hire should be a female--in fact the dean told them their line "may" depend on it. The department needed an econometrician but there were NO female econometricians on the market (zero)! So, in order to keep their line, they hired a woman who was ABD in ecomomic geography--and who has (three years now) not finished her PhD.
Subtle sexism works both ways.


Richard Henry Morgan - 2/20/2005

There seems to have been at the conference (from the record linked to), and continues to be, a certain ignorance about just what is claimed for differences by gender in math and spatial reasoning. Women actually outperform men in computation -- given example problems, and asked to use the methods shown to solve similar problems, women outperform men. Asked to solve problems for which no model is given, men outperform women (we're talking on averages here, and particularly at the high end of the distribution). It is useful to have actually read the literature (such as Kimura's useful summary, Sex and Cognition) if one wants a precise command of the facts and what they imply -- there is no blanket male superiority in "math", per se, as males are outperformed in mathematical calculation.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/20/2005

On Oscar's point, I would agree; as I've said, I think his statement was at best intellectually sloppy. The biological/genetic literature is one of which I know virtually nothing; I have seen some academic defenders of Summers on these grounds--i.e., Steven Pinker--but have no idea about their credibility.

I'd add, though, that by this standard, Summers' critics are equally at fault, since they have focused on the overall figures rather than on the more favorable figures in recent hires.

This issue is one that makes me feel uncomfortable, since I agree neither with Summers' arguments nor with those of his critics. Since his critics seem to represent the majority in the academy, I view them as more dangerous than Summers.


Richard Henry Morgan - 2/20/2005

I wouldn't call the NBA a major profession either, but your assertion is densible on other grounds -- I'm not aware of any survey having been done of NBA players. Charles Barkley's comment on being rich and Republican certainly doesn't count as a survey, but is perhaps humorous in its way:

http://vutorch.org/vli4/barkley.htm


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/20/2005

"Figures on hires in the last 5-10 years suggest a gender balance in national hiring patterns within the academy."

I think this underscores why many people were concerned, rightly, with Summer's comments. (This does not mean that I support his dismissal, by the way.) The argument that aspects of scientific skills and temperment tends to move women away from those fields only holds water if those same skill and temprement are unimportant in every other area of academia.

That strikes me as unlikely.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/20/2005

I would say that the most right-leaning major profession in America would probably be big business, and I would (and do) not trust the statements of business leaders on, say, issues relating to environmentalism or consumer protection.

As to Greg's point about the NBA, there are 12 players on 30(?) teams, so a total of less than 400 players. I wouldn't call that a major profession. And, given their salaries, I rather doubt that a poll of today's NBA players would reveal it as more left-leaning than the academy.

The most obvious institution in the contemporary academy preventing a 50-50 gender split among professors and racial/ethnic diversity at numbers comparable to those in society as a whole is tenure. Because tenure means that we're still dealing with an academy as a whole many of whose members were hired in the late 1960s or 1970s, when hires were disproportionately white males. Figures on hires in the last 5-10 years suggest a gender balance in national hiring patterns within the academy.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/20/2005

This, in fact, might be the case--your references to SNCC, etc. are on point.

The key difference, though, between the two: a celebration of "diversity" on both racial and gender grounds in hiring was not central to the SNCC argument in the way that a celebration of "diversity" has become the generally accepted truth in the academy.


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/20/2005

K.C. By way of comparison, what is the most right-leaning profession in America? And what should we distrust about it?


Greg James Robinson - 2/20/2005

The academy is the most "left-leaning major profession in American society, with the possible exception of the media"? This sounds very much like just the kind of "foolish statement" on "an issue...peripheral to his overall goals" that Mr. Johnson describes. How Left-leaning? By what standard? How about professional basketball, since it is populated largely by African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic? What about professional comedians, since so many of them are Canadians, and come from the northern welfare state?

Indeed, there seems to be a double standard at work here. There are people who are calling for the investigating and firing of a tenured professor, as in a certain controversial case at present, for using his freedom of speech. The President of Harvard makes a suggestion, giving some hesitations and minimal qualifiers, that women are naturally less adept at science and naturally less willing to put in the time. This is both foolish and offensive. Even more, an administrator represents the institution and is thus answerable for his remarks in a way that a professor enjoying academic freedom is not. (Thus was Leonard Jeffries removable from his Department chair at City College, following his offensive and blatantly silly remarks some years ago, but not from his teaching position). Yes, it is Summers whose freedom of speech people rush to defend as an absolute. It seems to me that it would be legitimate to consider whether Summers' actions, when taken in context with others (l'affaire Cornel West), interfere with his ability to lead a diverse university population.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/20/2005

I just looked you up, Dr. Snider! Do you see what I mean? I didn't mean not to give you your entitlement.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/20/2005

Ms. Snider, I don't speak for Professor Johnson, but I think that you make a fair point -- that, when we discriminate, it is often unselfconscious discrimination and runs counter to our professed values. It certainly happened in SCLC, SNCC, and SDS, the instance you cite.


Christy Jo Snider - 2/20/2005

I agreed with your post until you made the comment: "By any survey that's been released over the past few years, the academy is the most left-leaning major profession in American society today.... It seems somewhat counterintuitive to contend that search committees populated largely by figures at one end of the political spectrum regularly engage in gender discrimination."

There are plenty of times where you can look back in history and see that a group's political beliefs did not necessarily line up with its treatment of individuals. The one that springs most to mind is SDS. The New Left's treatment of women in the organization actually gave rise to the feminist movement of the 1970s. I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility to imagine that just because many members of the academy are progressives or vote Democratic that they can be influenced by unrecognized prejudices and not always judge applicants with unbiased and open minds. Its like saying that because most Fortune 500 companies are dominated by conservatives they discriminate against women with children since working mothers undermines right-wing family values.

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